Bernie Anderson
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Current musings, whatever they may be. 

Small Habits, Huge Gains (or, How I Went to the Gym This Morning Without Ever Thinking About It)

Monday Morning.

I wake up just prior to the 5:30 alarm. I put on my black gym shorts and a red shirt. I don't know why it's usually a red shirt. Occasionally the red shirt is in the dirty clothes, and for the sake of all who might come near me for the next few hours, I'll pull a clean black or gray one (I'm a fan of this brand. This company was started by a friend of mine. Quality stuff - I highly recommend checking them out!)

My preference is always red, though.

The dogs need to be taken care of, as they heard my rustling around to find a red shirt. Their expectation is to be taken outside and fed.

I oblige. Mainly because these dogs have me trained all too well.

A shot of espresso and I'm out the door to my local gym.

This is essentially my routine every day except Sunday.

Today (Monday) was no exception. As I made the short drive to the gym today, I realized I'd done all that's described above without ever thinking about it. My brain just kicked into "habit mode" and my body did what it was supposed to do.

I spent the next 40 minutes thinking about this as I tried to move heavy things with my chest and arms.

Small wins are a steady application of a small advantage.
— Charles Duhigg from "The Power of Habit"

It's not always been this way. In fact, I've just started a daily morning workout since last October. But it's etched into my brain now and my morning routine is muscle memory.

Put on the black shorts and red shirt. Walk the dogs. Shot of espresso. Drive to the gym.

I don't think about it. I just do it.

This is the outworking of principles researched and written about by several authors I've come to appreciate. (Charles Duhigg's "The Power of Habit ". Also "The Slight Edge" by Jeff Olson. Highly recommended reads.) The small things we do consistently will form habit patterns that can produce exponential results.

Not going to go into the details here — but read those books — particularly "The Power of Habit" and you'll get the science behind the concept.

As I think about this today, I realize other areas in my life that need to be "taken to the gym"; that is, practiced and replicated on a daily basis. I've recently blogged about this as related to writing. 500 words per day is not really that much, when it comes down to it. Type fast enough and it can be done in about 20 minutes, without a lot of effort. But that yields better and consistent content for this website (and another project I'm going to unveil soon). It gives me something to edit — and to ship.

But there are other areas where a daily routine with small, consistent daily gains could have fantastic potential:

  • Spiritual: Daily being in my Bible and in prayer has always been a really important value that's not always been practiced. What many people fail to realize is that the Bible can be read through in a year in just 10 minutes per day. You just need a tool, and habit. I really like this great little app on my phone called "ReadingPlan". It contains a plan called "thematic" — and that's how I'm reading the Bible this year. Between ReadingPlan and the prayers of Celtic Daily Prayer book that's put out by the Northumbria Community, having daily time to feed my soul is not that difficult. Habits with tools. So important.
  • Vocational: I'm trying to deepen my work and to be more proactive and less responsive. For my circumstances, this means not starting the day with email. Typically, I'll do a quick email triage as I begin my work day (I literally set a 5-minute timer on phone), after which email get's shut off for an hour while I use my best brain power on a project that requires careful thought. Whether that's writing a proposal or creating a discipleship tool for a church - I take the first hour of my work day to do something that requires my brain to be distraction-free and fully engaged. A pomodoro timer is super helpful for this one. I set it for 50 minutes, turn off all distraction and don't stop until the buzzer sounds. (read more about this in Cal Newport's book "Deep Work.")
  • Relational: This is one I'm working to improve. I want to spend a few minutes every day engaged in a significant conversation with the people I care about. It's a bit hard with a daughter away at college, but if I can intentionally engage my wife and son on a daily basis, I think that's success. This is one that I'm probably weakest at doing ... but even small gains — five minutes per day, will deepen the relationships that matter to me most.
  • Photography: I take and post a picture everyday. The purpose of this is to learn to "see" the world around me more clearly and "photographically". Hopefully, I'll become an increasingly better photographer by practicing every single day.
A daily photo, even if it's just an iPhone shot, will help make a better photographer. (Taken at on the National Mall, Washington, DC)

A daily photo, even if it's just an iPhone shot, will help make a better photographer. (Taken at on the National Mall, Washington, DC)

I don't have to think about the things that are daily, habitual and routine. I was quite pleased to realize that my gym routine has become a thoughtless activity requiring very little will power. As these other small activities become trodden paths in my brain, it all can be accomplished in a similar manner. This concept is revolutionary in a technological age where bad habits as easy as picking up an iPhone and diving into the Facebook app.

A small amount of daily, invested intention can make monumental changes in productivity. Not to mention feeling better about one's self.

And for what it's worth, going down a pant-size or two is nice, as well.

What about you? Is there an area in your life where you'd like to make small but consistent changes? Have you made small consistent changes which have developed into habits that you don't have to think about any more? Would love to hear about your story in the comments below.